Trump, Obama, and Our Modern Crisis of Confidence in Leadership: Making Big-Picture Sense of Unsettling Realities

I have put off commenting about presidential election politics in the U.S. both because the topic already consumes too much air time and because the larger portion of supposed debate has been trivial, and often simply ludicrous. But if what we witness—particularly the ludicrousness—has big-picture cultural implications, closer examination is in order. I think it does.

Certainly, it is hard not to be disturbed by the rancor and pettiness of the election process. It leaves us to ponder whether intelligent leadership could possibly be a result—this in the context of times in which not just intelligent leadership, but truly wise leadership, is be coming more and more essential. We also encounter a broader lack of respect for government as a whole, this from both the political right and the political left.

How do we best make sense of these unsettling circumstances? What most stands out to me is the degree that fears and insecurities are driving the political conversation. We can understood the greater portion of the ludicrousness from this fact. It is not unreasonable that people would react angrily to the discomfort such fears and insecurities produce. It is also not unreasonable that people would be vulnerable to candidates who promise—however irrationally—to make this discomfort go away.

But this observation leaves us with the question of just what creates this level of fear and insecurity. People tend to attribute their anger to factors such as loss of U.S. jobs to foreign workers or Wall Street greed. But while recent job losses are real and the growing gap between rich and poor is essential to address, I don’t think these factors, by themselves, are enough to produce the amount and kind of discomfort that people today feel. People also tend to assume that the pain they experience is a simple product of inept or corrupt policy. In fact, the problems they site are only in limited ways the result of failed governance. Later I will describe how we would likely see similar circumstances whoever was in power.

I suspect that the craziness we see is also a response to more encompassing cultural dynamics. Making sense of these dynamics both supports understanding and serves as an antidote to fear. It doesn’t make insecurities any less. But it does help us get beyond the feeling that we are being blindsided by events. It also helps us get beyond knee-jerk assumptions that make our discomforts the products of some particular group’s evil doing (whether immigrants, capitalists, democrats, or republicans).

In my most recent book. Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, I describe how a crisis of confidence, today, permeates leadership of all sorts. I address how this crisis is predicted, how it relates to Cultural Maturity’s broader changes, and what it suggests about what effective leadership in times ahead will require of us. While more immediate factors certainly play roles in the craziness we witness with the electoral process, I suspect the fact that these factors are being felt in the context of more encompassing cultural changes is as or more significant.

Below, I’ve excerpted a section from the book that describes these changes in how we understand—and embody—leadership. Following the excerpt, I reflect briefly on how these changes relate to the specific circumstances we now find with presidential politics.

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“Trust in leadership of all sorts today is less than it was at the height of anti-authoritarian rhetoric in the 1960s. We could easily assume—and people have argued—that this modern lack of confidence in leadership reflects something gone terribly wrong—broad failure on the part of leaders, a loss of moral integrity on the part of those being led, or even an impending collapse of society. The concept of Cultural Maturity offers an alternative interpretation.

The concept describes how our times require-and make possible-an essential “growing up” in how we understand, relate to, and embody authority. This includes authority of every sort, from that exercised in leading nations; to the expertise of teachers, doctors, or ministers; to the authority we apply in making the most intimate of personal life choices. It also describes how we now reside in an awkward in-between time in the realization of such new, more mature leadership. These are not easy circumstances.

It helps to put what we see in historical perspective. As with other culturally shared dynamics, formal leadership has evolved over time. Formal leadership’s evolution has involved not just what leadership looks like, but what makes it leadership at all. Leadership, as we generally think of it, arrived with our Modern Age—with the emergence of individual determination as a rallying cry and with the rise of democratic principles. New leadership assumptions and approaches then directly challenged the more heredity-based and dictatorial/authoritarian leadership practices of earlier times. But while these changes represented important steps forward, a further chapter in how we conceive of and engage leadership will be essential for times ahead.

The role of projection helps make sense of both what we have known before and what is changing. Mythologized projection has always before been central to the workings of leadership. We’ve projected our power onto leaders. This is most obvious with leaders of times well past such as pharaohs and kings, who were seen, if not as gods, then certainly as god-like. But in a similar if not quite so absolutist way, we have continued to make leaders heroic symbols in modern times. We described John Kennedy using the imagery of Camelot. We depicted Ronald Reagan as a mythic father figure. In a related way, we’ve symbolically elevated not just political leaders, but authorities of all sorts—religious leaders, professors, doctors, and leaders in business. The relationship of leaders and followers has been based on two-halves-make-a-whole systemic dynamics.

Projecting our power onto leaders has served us. As with “chosen people/evil other” projections in relations between social groups (see An End to War As We Know It), and the romanticized projections of “two-halves-make-a-whole intimacy” (see Understanding Today’s New Chapter In the Story of Love), idealizing authority has protected us from life’s easily overwhelming bigness. It has provided a sense of order in a world that would otherwise be too complex and deeply uncertain to tolerate. But as is the case with these other systemic dynamics, going forward will require more than leadership as we have known it. Leadership as traditionally conceived stops short of a full realization of what it means either to be an individual or to exercise authority. If the concept of Cultural Maturity holds, the future depends on the possibility of leadership that more effectively reflects the whole of who we are.

Do we currently see such changes in how we think about and embody leadership? Given today’s crisis of confidence in leadership, the evidence might seem to suggest otherwise. But this diminishing confidence is also consistent with what we would predict as old forms of leadership give way to more culturally mature possibilities. I think it is not so much that leaders themselves are failing today, than that old forms of leadership are failing. In fact we see changes consistent with the needed, more mature kind of leadership with authority relationships of many sorts.

A good way to see these beginning changes is to look to the opposite halves of traditional authority-related polarities—teacher and student, doctor and patient, minister and churchgoer, president and populace. Increasingly we see changes that “bridge” these polarities, that reflect a more mature and systemic leadership picture. Authority relationships of all sorts are becoming more two-way, with more listening and flexibility on the part of leaders and more engaged and empowered roles for those who draw on a leader’s expertise and guidance.

But while we see Cultural Maturity–related changes in most every leadership sphere, we also see symptoms that reflect just how much we are at an awkward, transitional time in these changes. We tend to be much better at demanding the gift of culturally mature leadership than at knowing what to do with it. We may want leaders to get off their pedestals, but frequently when they attempt to do so, we respect them less, not more. We want leaders to be more transparent, to reveal more of themselves and to make fewer decisions behind closed doors; however, when they do, our first response is often to attack them for their human frailties. But even this awkward, in-between place is a start. And it is a start toward a kind of change that should more and more define human possibility.”

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How does all of this relate to the unsettling circumstances we find with today’s presidential election process? What we witness is very much in keeping with such awkward, transitional dynamics. If such dynamics are playing a role, we would expect to see significant fear and insecurity (often with at best rudimentary understanding of why we might be feeling fearful and insecure). We would also expect to encounter a growing lack of respect for established authority. In addition, we should expect to find people attracted to the easy-answer solutions of dogmatic figures who attribute our pain only to the evil doings of others and who promise to protect us from our discomforts and retaliate for perceived transgressions.

In relationship specifically to Cultural Maturity’s changes, in recent times we’ve seen both positive steps forward, and reactions that take us back. I’ve remarked on how Barack Obama’s leadership has often reflected beginning culturally mature capacities (see Grading Barack Obama). But we’ve also seen reactions that are regressive—often dramatically and dangerously so. Much that we’ve witnessed with this presidential election represents a prime example of what Creative Systems Theory calls Transitional Absurdity. (See Transitional Absurdity: How the Ludicrous can Co-Exist With Hope.)

During President Obama’s time in office, I’ve often disagreed with specific policy decisions. But even when I’ve disagree, I’ve been impressed by his commitment to bringing maturity and complexity of perspective to the decision-making process. Consistent with my claim that his leadership has often reflected beginning culturally mature capacities, he has encountered opposition and misunderstanding not just from the political right, but also those in his own party. I warned Democrat friends before Obama’s election that he was not a traditional liberal. The fact that he was very often something better has rarely been appreciated.

Unfortunately, this election has not offered us anyone able to provide further steps forward. The best of possible replacements are simply competent. They offer little beyond leadership of a traditional sort. The least acceptable possible replacements fall not just short, but frighteningly so. We see attempts to lead by playing on people’s worst impulses.

A colleague recently asked me what historical figure Donald Trump most reminded me of. Mussolini came most quickly to mind. I was referring both to Mussolini’s bullying temperament and the fact that Mussolini’s appeal was based on protecting the Italian people from their fears and insecurities. (People knew he was a bully, but he was “their bully.”)

Trump is a demagogue, but not particularly an ideologue (a characteristic he shares with Mussolini, at least with Mussolini in his early years of flip-flopping between ideologies). Because of this, he is able to be a bully without people thinking too much about what he might actually stand for. Because Trump’s attraction is personality-based rather than ideology-based, he can have broad appeal to those who feel disenfranchised.

Trump’s particular approach also protects us from our insecurities in ways that could only work today. I’ve described how one of our time’s most striking—and dangerous—Transitional Absurdities is our increasing inability to distinguish “likes,” “clicks,” selfies, and the artificial stimulation of noise and mayhem from significance. Trump, as the consummate self-promoter, is the ultimate “selfie” candidate.

It is important if we are not to fall victim to such appeal that we understand why we encounter the depth of fear and insecurity that we so often do. A major portion of Americans, whatever their political inclinations, find these to be troubling times. They agree that, in some basic sense, “America is on the wrong path.” But the sources of such negative feelings are much less clear than the obvious structural and social instabilities that defined Mussolini’s 1920’s Italy.

I think of the origins of these feelings as layered. Short-sighted decision-making does play a role. The financial dislocations of the last decade could have been largely avoided if we had not let greed so define economic policies. (See Money as Ideology.) And those who find their jobs disappearing rightly conclude that leaders have largely ignored their plight.

But what we witness is also a product of hard-to-affect factors that the best of policies could not significantly alter. I’ve written about how the United States and Western Europe face quandaries that come from the simple maturing of their economies. (Again see Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future.) The world has an increasing number of nations who’s economies reside at “strapping adolescent” or “ambitious young adult” developmental stages. Job loss that might appear to be the result of unfair trade practices or uncontrolled immigration would very likely be happening today whatever policies leaders might put in place. Can we “make American great again.” I’ve argued that we must. But I’ve also argued that getting there will require that we entertain a new, more mature definition of “great.” (See Redefining Wealth and Progress.)

And, in addition, the more really big-picture cultural changes I’ve referred to in this piece almost certainly play a significant role. “Transition” is a formal concept within Creative Systems Theory. Transitional dynamics predictably contribute to financial instabilities. The more general “crisis of purpose” that comes with Transitional changes produces a particularly pervasive and unsettling—and often largely unconscious—kind of insecurity. (See A New Story for the Future: Confronting Our Times’ Crisis of Purpose.) And the depth with which people today lack faith in government is very hard to explain in other ways.

This additional layer of explanation has both “bad-news” and “good-news” aspects. On the “bad-news side,” it raises the ante as far the how dangerous the consequences of simple-answer thinking could prove to be. For the most part, Transitional Absurdities are best treated as distractions—unhelpful responses that will go away on their own if we keep our eyes on the work at hand. But it is also the case that such dynamics can lead to dangerously misguided choices—a legitimate concern that is amplified by the fact that we live in times when even small missteps can have calamitous consequences.

On the “good-news” side, this additional layer of explanation invites us to entertain ultimately positive outcomes. It points toward the possibility of greater maturity in how we embody authority in every part of our lives. It also opens the door to contemplating changes of a more structural sort. I’ve written about how we can understand the absurdity of today’s extreme partisan pettiness as evidence of the need for an important next chapter in the story of governance. (See Partisan Pettiness: An Abject Failure of Leadership.) It is reasonable to interpret what we see with the particularly marked absurdity of this electoral process in a similar way—as pointing toward essential changes that are only now beginning to make useful sense.

Could we end up responding as Italy did in the face of more circumscribed insecurities ninety years ago? That is possible. But it is also possible that what we are seeing in the electoral sphere could help us recognize how next steps in the evolving story of leadership and governance are now necessary—and also to begin to understand how they might be options.